Our smartphones store a countless amount of information about us. A quick glance through a user’s smartphone can reveal who they spend their time with, what they do for a living and even more. The devices aren’t so personal that absolutely no one else can be trusted with them, but more than a few readers out there probably get a little nervous when someone else goes through their device.
Because of this, passwords to unlock smartphones have become increasingly common. On iPhones and Android devices, this is typically a four-digit number that needs to be entered before anything from the phone can be accessed. In the latest version of Android, facial recognition can even be used via the device’s front-facing camera.
Unfortunately, all of this security probably won’t save you if the police happen to want to search your phone.
Apple and Google, the respective makers of iOS and Android, both stand by their users. Aside from numerous patent infringements, both companies also tend to respect the law. More often than not, this results in the companies helping police to search your phone.
According to a San Francisco source in law enforcement, Apple has been helping police bypass iPhone passwords for the last few years. Google’s cooperation is somewhat more subdued, if only for the fact that their security is too strong: Google doesn’t have access to your Google accounts password, and thus can’t fetch your device’s PIN code for the authorities. There is a backdoor, though, in which Google resets a user’s password and uses that reset password to access the Android device’s PIN.
Okay, so Apple and Google like to stop criminals. That’s fine. Let’s take the most extreme circumstance, though. Suppose you’re Apple CEO Tim Cook, and for whatever reason the police stop you and want to search your iPhone. Apple could just say no, right?
As it turns out, they can’t. Internal documents have been leaked showing a court order that police departments use in their investigations. All an officer needs to do is fill out the device information and have it signed by a judge. At that point, neither Apple nor Google has the option not to comply.
In an even more extreme circumstance, what if an officer wants to search your phone but doesn’t have the time or a willing judge needed for a court order to be signed? As it turns out, the law gets around that as well. Several companies offer unlocking solutions for smartphones. Most notably, a piece of software called XRY can bypass most iOS devices and Android phones. Since most courts have ruled that no warrant is needed to search a smartphone, this means that the entire process is legal.
This knowledge is bound to raise concerns with privacy watchdogs. Many have argued that smartphones should require a warrant to be searched. The end lesson, though, is that your smartphone is never safe from prying eyes. With that in mind, try not to keep anything on it that you don’t want others to see, or at least avoid run-ins with the law.
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